Breastfeeding is hard, so we should be softer on mothers

Foot In Mouth

The first year of mothering can be a lonely place with moments of madness. So surely we should be more understanding of the needs of new mums

It was a cold afternoon last December when a group of mothers staged a mass “nurse-in” outside Claridge’s, their babies lunching for justice. It was a response to the hotel’s recent unpleasantness – when a woman was asked to put a scarf over her baby’s head as she breastfed her during high tea, there was a sort of uproar. The story flowed and ebbed, with hundreds of mothers, politicians and aghast online commenters getting livid, then bored, then livid again.

The hubbub had died down by the time 28-year-old Caroline Starmer wrote that, as she fed her crying nine-month-old baby at the Primark in Leicester’s Humberstone Gate this July, she “was approached by a security guard who asked me to vacate the premises. I stood my ground and stated my rights, that I can legally feed where I want. Just for the security officer to physically remove my daughter from my breast and walk down the store with her, saying if I wanted my daughter, then I was to come and get her.” After posting her experience on Free to Feed, a Facebook page for pro-breastfeeding campaigners, Starmer’s piece went viral. Except Primark’s CCTV footage showed no evidence of a security guard approaching her and, in court last Thursday, Starmer pleaded guilty to intending to pervert the course of justice. The court is considering a custodial sentence.

The same day, a major study was published reporting no significant link between breastfeeding and increased intelligence. This in direct contrast to another study that showed people who had been breastfed proved to be more intelligent, spend longer at school and earn more than those who were bottle fed. And, Brazilian researchers said, the longer they were breastfed, the better they tended to be doing. I mention these studies, two of thousands, only to illustrate the background noise to the soundtrack of a baby’s first six months, like the assault of violins in a horror film.

Whether it’s in Claridge’s or Primark or your own dark bedroom, the action is the same. The screaming kid, the frantic scrabbling to get tit from bra and nipple to mouth. Before that, the frantic scrabbling to make it all work. For the milk to come and the baby to learn, and the pain to subside; at 4am a quiet tub of formula side-eyeing you from the kitchen. And these weighted facts singing their ballads – whatever you’re doing, they seem to say, it is wrong.

So I get why Starmer might have lied. Because this first year of mothering can be a lonely place, stapled through with trauma and moments of madness, and because of the crushing pressure, and because the act of breastfeeding is so rich and angry with feeling, and because, crucially, it is incredibly boring except occasionally to other mothers on the internet. So yes, I can see how one could want to talk and have nobody to talk to. And type a story into a box on Facebook, looking for someone to just go “mate” or “It’s hard.” Having seen the sisterliness the Claridge’s episode inspired, that noisy empathy, was Starmer trying to gather some for herself? Was it just a tiny cry for help? And is that so bad? Was it a shortcut for what she really wanted to say: “Breastfeeding is hard, mothering is hard, all these days and nights… It is hard to stay sane”?

It’s a shame that, in making up a story, she’s inadvertently ruined a lot of the credibility those women she was reaching out to had built with campaigning and that cold day last December. And it’s a shame, too, that Starmer’s post caught the attention of the press. And that instead of the care she so clearly requires, it has led to Starmer facing the possibility of jail.

People make things up on the internet. Sometimes they’re harmful, shocking or really weird. But it’s wrong to simply punish them. It seems so clear, from here, that this woman needs a smart person to sit down and talk to, with the option of coffee and a custard cream and the kids looked after for an hour. It’s not a coincidence that the lie she told was about breastfeeding, nor that she used a new mother’s forum to tell it in. Some new mothers are venting their furies at the pressures they’re under by campaigning outside Claridge’s, but many more are screaming silently into the internet – there are more helpful ways to prevent it than by punishing them.

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Powered by article was written by Eva Wiseman, for on Sunday 4th October 2015 06.00 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010